The following sermon was delivered at the Condon United Church of Christ on September 1, 2013. The text for the sermon is Luke 14:1, 7-14. The video above is referred to in the sermon.
I was too young to serve in the Vietnam War. But I had the stateside nightmares of a child terrified by images on the television. The images of Viet Cong soldiers in my own living room are still etched in my memory.
But that was a child’s nightmare. A dream. It wasn’t real. It has long since lost its emotional hold on me.
I delivered newspapers for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the war. Each afternoon, a bundle of papers would show up on my front lawn, I would cut open the bundle, place them in my delivery cart, and take them to each home on my route.
One afternoon as I was cutting open the bundle, my next-door neighbor darted out of her house. Frantically, though not a subscriber, she begged to look at the paper.
“I’ve gotta know. I have to see the numbers.”
You see, for those of you who don’t know, they would print the draft numbers in the newspaper. These numbers would tell you whose teenage son would end up on a battlefield in the jungles of southeast Asia.
This mother was terrified — terrified — that her son, the baby she nursed at her breast, the not-yet-man to whom she read Dr. Seuss stories only a few years ago, the boy who never seemed to put his boxers away in his dresser drawer after she folded them…
She had to know if he was being called up. She was terrified that he was about to be ripped out of her arms before he had completely grown up.
That was a mother’s nightmare. It was not a dream. It was real. The emotional impact of that day has never — never — left me.
And, so, yesterday as the President spoke, I burst into tears because though we’ve sanitized war, it is still turning our back on God. It still involves killing someone’s child. I weeped because once again, as a nation, we will likely be playing by The Culture’s Commands. Someone’s child will be killed by a bomb paid for with our taxes.
Once again we as a people, are turning away from The Realm’s Rules, away from God’s dreams for us. Evil, in Syria this time, has left our leaders believing that the only choice is more bloodshed and violence.
I’ve spent the week studying and reflecting on our gospel passage from Luke. It is often preached as being about humility. And it is about humility. That’s a legitimate interpretation. One problem with reading it as if it is only about being humble is that it can lead us to think that Jesus is somehow doing us a favor.
He’s trying to keep us from being embarrassed. The CEB translation even uses the word “embarrassed.” Listen to verse nine again,
The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. Luke 14:9 CEB
And then in verse ten, as if Jesus is more akin to Miss Manners or Emily Post than the challenging prophet he is, Jesus says,
Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. Luke 14:10 CEB
No, to focus on the importance of humility runs the risk that we miss the critical point, the broader point that Jesus is making. Yes, we are called to be humble, to be servants of humanity but to focus on humility and humbleness alone is to miss the bigger message. Humbling ourselves to God is about trusting and following The Realm’s Rules.
This passage is about rules.
It is about distinguishing between The Culture’s Commands and the nature of God’s unfolding realm on earth. Jesus is striving to make it clear that The Realm’s Rules are not the same as The Culture’s Commands. In this parable, we see that the ancient culture’s rules involved the most important person being given the highest position. Though our culture is more flat than that, more egalitarian, more equal, we are not immune to status worship.
Our culture idolizes celebrities, sports figures, and — though we like to deny it — the very wealthy. Why else would social media be abuzz this week about Miley Cyrus’ dance when we continue to have high unemployment and children — especially brown and black children — are daily victims of violence and poverty in this country?
Just as Jesus is telling our sometimes slow-to-understand ancient kindred that God’s rules are different than cultural norms, God is still speaking through this parable to us. As followers of Jesus, we are expected to follow The Realm’s Rules instead of The Culture’s Commands. Hear the eleventh verse again. Jesus says,
All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.” Luke 14: 11 CEB
In other words, Jesus shouts, “New Rules!”
We are not called to be successful. We’re not called to accumulate wealth, to idolize celebrities, to look out only for ourselves. We’re not called to use our power to have our way — as individuals or as a nation. Quite the contrary, Jesus turns the rules upside down. Jesus tells us that we should do for those who can do nothing for us in return. Jesus tells us not to invite our friends, brothers, sisters, relatives, or rich neighbors to lunch or dinner.
Instead, when you give a banquet, you should invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. Luke 14:13 CEB
Invite those who were unable in ancient culture to reciprocate. We’re called to give more than we take. We’re called to love people in the face of hatred. We’re called to welcome people even if it means they will never serve on a committee or give a dime to this church.
We’re called to introduce every single person we meet to the extravagant love and welcome of God — even if they never call themselves UCCers or cross our threshold. We are called to
love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] strength, and with all [our] mind, and love [our] neighbor as [ourselves.]” Luke 10:27 CEB
To live by The Realm’s Rules is not easy when we live within a culture that commands very different behavior. Some Christians, like the Amish, have chosen to live outside of mainstream culture as much as possible in their effort to be true to The Realm’s Rules and to avoid the pitfalls of The Culture’s Commands.
That is not the path any of us have chosen. We have chosen to live within the tension.
Some days I think it is the most foolish decision I’ve ever made. Sometimes I wish my faith allowed me to embrace The Culture’s Commands or that I could withdraw completely like the Amish, but my path is within the tension.
Living within the mainstream culture — within rules for living that are very different than Jesus’ rules for living — means we need one another more than ever. We need to call each other out when we stray too far outside of the unfolding realm and into our callous, me-first, violent, power-hungry, and wealth-idolizing culture.
We also need to challenge our leaders when the answer for evil acts is to punish an already-traumatized people with even more violence. This time, we are told, dropping bombs will somehow make the world a better place.
We’ve heard that line before and it is not the way of the unfolding realm of God.
The extravagant love of God dreams of a day when mothers and fathers no longer have their children ripped from their arms by poverty or war or our indifference.
The Good News is that the unfolding realm of God is up to the task. Love, God’s love, is, in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” The Good News is that we are not alone in our aching desire for Jesus’ upside down realm. Faithful people from Jews to Bah’ai to Sikhs to Rastafarians and, yes, even our Muslim sisters and brothers each have a sacred tradition of love for neighbor. We all have a variation on The Golden Rule as you saw in the video this morning.
Our calling as Christians is to open ourselves to the Spirit in prayer and to humbly interact with others.
When we do that, we will find the Divine using us to live peace and love into existence. When we do that, the unfolding realm of God will grow just a teeny bit bigger until the day when the One’s dream for humanity is realized. Amen.